What Marriage Mentoring Is and Isn’t

Even though Rodger and Lynne Schmidt had their sights set on going to Africa as missionaries, they still struggled. “Is this really something we should be doing?” they were asking themselves.

Erik Johnson tells their story in an article he wrote for Leadership Journal. “At the same time in the same city, another couple was also wrestling with their call, though from the other end of a missionary career. Now retired, this couple was asking, ?After forty-one years as missionaries in Africa, who are we? Our home and life work are on another continent. What is our life all about?’ ”

A mentoring program at Denver Seminary brought these two couples together. And it was a great match. Through this mentoring relationship, the Schmidts’ call was confirmed, and the retired couple discovered a pro-found sense of significance in their new role as mentors. “We felt encouraged, they felt validated,” notes Rodger Schmidt.

And so go the benefits of mentoring.

Today’s Need for Mentors

Why do the trades have apprenticeships and professions require intern-ships? Because personal attention from experienced practitioners helps learners master essential skills, techniques, attitudes, and knowledge.

In every culture throughout human history, mentoring has been the primary means of passing on knowledge and skills. In the past, mentoring took place in the university where a student learned directly from the scholar.

The Bible is certainly filled with examples of mentoring: Eli and Samuel, Elijah and Eli-sha, Moses and Joshua, Naomi and Ruth, Elizabeth and Mary, Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Timothy. And, of course, Jesus and the disciples is a supreme example of mentoring.

Down through the centuries, young people have learned most through careful observation of those more experienced. Up until recently, mentoring was a way of life between the generations. But today, mentoring, for the most part, is in short supply. Mentoring was once assumed, expected, and therefore, almost unnoticed because of its commonness. But in the modern age, the learning process has shifted. It now relies primarily on computers, classrooms, books, and media. In most cases today, the relational connection between the knowledge-and-experience giver and the receiver has weakened or is nonexistent.

The time has come to bring back the fine art of mentoring.

What is a Mentor?

Does mentoring’s near disappearance mean it is no longer helpful? Absolutely not. Ask any successful leader and he or she will tell you: a young person starting out in a career, for example, will benefit greatly from a mentor — an older, experienced person who knows the ropes and will teach how things are done.

Here’s a pop quiz question:
A mentor is . . .
a) A model
b) An encourager
c) An imparter of knowledge
d) All of the above

The answer is “d.” A mentor may wear many different hats but the one thing that all mentors share is the ability to listen and encourage. A mentor is “a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction,” according to the Uncommon Individual Foundation, an organization devoted to mentoring research and training. It reports that mentoring is one of the most powerful tools we have for influencing human behavior.

The term mentor arises from an unlikely source. It first appeared in Homer’s classic, The Odyssey, where Odysseus asked a wise man named Mentor to care for his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was off fighting in the Trojan War. Mentor taught the boy “not only in book learning but also in the wiles of the world.” The fabled Mentor must have done his job well, because Telemachus grew up to be an enterprising lad who gallantly helped his father recover his kingdom.

But mentoring is more than the stuff of legends. A real-life mentor, one who serves as a model and provides individualized help and encouragement, can be invaluable to a receptive mentoree. Among the most important roles mentors play include

Giving timely information to mentorees
Modeling aspects of what they wish to impart
Challenging and motivating mentorees to move to higher levels
Directing mentorees to helpful resources when needed (sometimes painfully so)
Encouraging goodness and inspiring greatness
Lessening mentorees’ anxiety by normalizing experiences
Helping mentorees set goals
Keeping mentorees accountable to their goals
Providing a periodic review and evaluation of mentorees’ performance


A word of caution is in order: Mentors can do all of the aforementioned things and still be ineffective. Two dynamics are vital to the success of any mentoring relationship. Without them, all the modeling, challenging, encouraging, goal-setting, and accountability will fall flat. The two critical dynamics are (1) attraction, and (2) responsiveness.

Attraction is the starting point in every effective mentoring relation-ship. The mentor and the mentoree must be drawn to each other to some degree. If either side is not genuinely interested in the other, true mentoring will never take place. Along with this attractiveness, the mentoree must be willing and ready to learn from the mentor. Without a responsive attitude and a receptive spirit on the part of the mentoree, little genuine mentoring can occur.

Through our Center for Relationship Development we have helped coordinate thousands of marriage mentoring relationships over the years and we know firsthand how beneficial this relationship can be. We’ve heard countless stories. We’ve followed hundreds of these relationships. And we’ve come to a conclusion: there is no single way to be a marriage mentor; every mentoring relationship takes on its own personality. Yet the variance in these relationships still operates within certain parameters and that’s what allows us to define our terms.

So here goes. We define a marriage mentor as a relatively happy, more experienced couple purposefully investing in another couple to effectively navigate a journey that they have already taken.

It is a broad definition because, as we just mentioned, there is no one right way to mentor. Each mentoring relationship takes on its own style. The amount of time couples spend together and the content they discuss is personalized to that relationship. A marriage mentoring relationship can be short term or long term. It can be consistent and predictable or spontaneous and sporadic.

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While every marriage mentoring relationship has its own style that unfolds as the relationship develops, some potential confusion can be spared if the mentors and mentorees discuss their initial expectations of the relationship. This discussion, of course, necessitates the mentoring couple to be somewhat clear on their own “style” before meeting with the mentorees. For example, you may want to discuss whether you see your-selves more as models or as coaches or as teachers or as guides, and so on.

For now, here is a representative list of what a marriage mentor couple does. A marriage mentor couple:

willingly shares what they know (in a noncompetitive way)
represents skill, knowledge, virtue, and accomplishment because they have gone before the couple they are mentoring
takes a personal and heartfelt interest in the other couple’s development and well-being
offers support, challenge, patience, and enthusiasm while guiding other couples to new levels of competence
points the way and represents tangible evidence of what another couple can become Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.
exposes the recipients of their mentoring to new ideas, perspectives, and standards
has more expertise in terms of knowledge yet views themselves as equal to those they mentor


The point is that each marriage mentor couple needs to consider what it is that they want to bring to the mentoring relationship. This means considering your two personalities and traits. Importantly, it also means being clear about what your role as a mentor couple does not include.

What a Mentor is Not

“What I need is someone to talk to who has walked down the path I’m just beginning,” said Lisa, four months into her new marriage. “Whenever I go to my mom or dad with a situation, they end up parenting me or teaching me something I don’t really need to learn.”

Lisa, like most newlyweds we have met, needs a mentor. Mom and Dad certainly serve a helpful function in the life of a new bride or groom, but they cannot usually offer the distance and objectivity that a mentor gives. For this reason, it is important to realize exactly what a mentor is not. The following is a list of mistaken mentoring roles we have witnessed, offered as a guide to keeping you from making the same mistakes. A mentor is not:

a mother or father. Your job is not to parent the couple you are mentoring.
automatically a pal or a buddy. Your job is not necessarily to be friends for the purpose of socializing.
“on call” for every little crisis. Your time is limited to discussion about major situations, not minor ones.
necessarily committed long-term. The mentoring relationship may have a prescribed timeline or it may follow a natural cycle of its own.
a professor. Your job it not to instruct in the traditional sense; you’ll typically not need to prepare for your meetings or do any research. Your life experience is your teaching tool.
a know-it-all. We’ll have more to say about this later, but let’s make it clear right now: your job is not to have all the answers.


We’ll say it again. A marriage mentor is a relatively happy, more experienced couple purposefully investing in another couple to effectively navigate a journey that they have already taken.

The Marriage Mentor’s Mission

The Christian church has been built through a sense of mission. The apostle Paul’s mission was to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. John’s mission was to teach the love of Christ. And when you consider Jesus’ disciples you can clearly see they had a sense of mission. His first twelve followers were called to be fishers of people. When his seventy volunteers spread out across Galilee, their mission was to proclaim the kingdom of God. When Jesus prepared to leave his followers on the Mount of Olives, he gave them the Great Commission (Mark 16:15).

The first generation of Christians knew what their mission was. They were to go into all their world, preaching and teaching the gospel, baptizing believers, and gathering them into a church. This mission was translated into operational terms they could follow. Anywhere a Christian family moved, they started a meeting of believers in their own home. And for three hundred years, the “house church” was the only kind of church the Christian movement knew.

We believe strongly that the first priority for marriage mentors should be a well-defined mission. This mission needs to be clearly stated, enthusiastically accepted, and internally believed. To be effective, every couple who volunteers to mentor anther couple needs a strong sense of mission.

So what is that mission and purpose? We’ve talked to enough marriage mentoring churches to know that many have their own way of articulating this. But a vast majority of local marriage mentoring ministries have yet to define it.

As with any mission, the place to begin is with a simple sentence stem: “The purpose of marriage mentoring is. . . .” Once you can complete this sentence clearly and with enthusiasm, you have locked onto your mission. To help you do just that, allow us to give you a starting place. After reviewing many local marriage mentoring ministries and talking with volunteers and pastors, we believe the following sentence captures the spirit and belief of what most are trying to accomplish.

The purpose of marriage mentoring is to lovingly invest in the preparation, maximization, and restoration of lifelong marriages by walking alongside couples who are less experienced than their mentors. Of course, you may find this purpose statement to be right in your sweet spot. Maybe it exactly captures what you are about. But feel free to edit it. Adapt it. Make it your own. The point is that for you as a couple to be great in your role as marriage mentors, you have to have a deep sense of your mission.

What is a Marriage Mentor Relationship?

Before leaving this chapter, we also want to put a finer point on the marriage mentoring relationship. For make no mistake about it, this is a relationship and the mentorees shape it just as much as the mentors.

For our purposes, a marriage mentoring relationship is intentionally established by mutual agreement between a more experienced couple and a less experienced couple for the purpose of helping the less experienced couple.

Note that this relationship is intentional. It’s premeditated, planned, and on purpose. It’s also mutually agreed upon. Both couples know the purpose of the relationship. A true mentoring relationship does not happen incognito. You can’t genuinely mentor a couple with-out them agreeing to it. And vice versa. You have to want to mentor the couple you’re mentoring.

Also note that this definition highlights experience. Crucial to the success of the relationship is that the more experienced couple has traveled a road similar to the one the less experienced couple is traveling. They have knowledge and wisdom to impart because of their experience. And while you, as the mentors, will certainly benefit from this relationship (we’ll get to that in our chapter on the boomerang effect), the relationship exists for the benefit of the less experienced couple.

Adapted from The Complete Guide to Marriage Mentoring Copyright © 2005 by The Foundation for Healthy Relationships, published by Zondervan, used with permission.